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Potty Training Wars: The “I Won’t Go At School” Kid

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I’ve read your column for years carefully storing away child-rearing and (of course) potty training advice, but the time has finally come where I have a unique, niche potty training question that I don’t think you have answered before!

My just-turned-three year old has been wearing undies at home for a few months and is mostly accident-free. At daycare he wore diapers, but was SO excited to use the potty with his teachers during the designated “potty breaks.”

We decided a few weeks ago that it was time to ditch the diapers at school. He was thrilled to bring his backup undies to school and we practiced how to tell his teachers he needed to go (he has a significant speech delay, so he knows how to sign for potty, say it (his teachers can recognize this phrase from him) and how to use his communication device to tell them). And? He just.won’t.go.

He sits on the potty, but he doesn’t go. And then he has accidents later. I’ve asked him if he’s scared to go at school, and he nodded. But he used to go at school without a problem!

We’ve tried incentives at school (m&ms), having his teacher in the bathroom with us during drop-off (he goes no problem if I’m there), having teachers give frequent reminders, have teachers sing songs on the potty to distract, and it’s just not working. It’s been a couple weeks, and MANY MANY plastic bags of soiled clothes, and I’ve run out of new ideas. Help?

So this ACTUALLY isn’t all that unique of a potty training issue — not that that makes it less baffling or frustrating. Kids develop random fears around school toilets, public toilets, etc. and then wage a war of wills with their own bladders to avoid dealing with that fear at all costs. They key is usually to pinpoint what EXACTLY they’re afraid of or avoiding about in that setting and see if there’s a workaround.

For some kids, it’s the automatic flushing toilets or noisy hand dryers in public restrooms. Other kids can be particularly sensitive to the smell of a non-home bathroom or dislike the “echo-y” acoustics. I’ve read about kids who are scared of black toilet seats, or who simply hate the rough, one-ply toilet paper. Or they had a bad experience with constipation or diarrhea or pee splashing on them or or or or etc. etc. etc. Sometimes it’s just too different than what they’re used to at home and they just don’t like it. To a very young child, of course, the simplest solution to all of these problems is to simply not go anymore. Great plan, kiddo.

Since your son has issues communicating, it might be a little harder to get him to tell you WHY he’s scared, and WHAT he’s scared of in particular. But since he’s told you he’s scared, believe him, and try not to brush off or dismiss his feelings as irrational. Take him to the potty at school solo and try to spend a little extra time in there with him and see if you can coax out some context. Does he just not like having a teacher there? (Lots of people aren’t a fan of peeing on command in front of an audience, after all.) Does he maybe not have to go during the designated potty breaks, but then feels too shy/self-conscious to ask to go later and/or just doesn’t want to interrupt what he’s doing to heed a teacher’s reminder? Is it something simpler like the water splashes him when he pees, the flush is too loud, he can’t take a book in like he does at home, etc.?

Depending on what you can manage to get out of him, you can start brainstorming what, in particular, you can change or adjust. Lemme toss out some wild guesses that might not be at all relevant for you, but hey, I’m on a roll here.

Is he relatively independent at home when it comes to going to the potty when he needs to and handling his business in there himself? Does the school absolutely require a teacher to be in there with him, or could he be granted some privacy? Could his classroom offer a self-serve “potty pass” for kids to take to the bathroom instead of having to specifically ask a teacher? (That’s what my son’s preschool used for potty trips outside of the designated post-recess break and the kids LOVED it. The toddler class knew the same system was used by the “big kids” in the primary program, so it worked as a training incentive as they watched their peers graduate to potty-trained status.)

You could also try setting a designated, secondary Toilet Time for him rather than the reminders. It’s totally okay if he doesn’t have to go during the designated breaks (not everybody’s bladder works that way, particularly if he’s going first thing when he arrives), but if the teachers can sort of track when he’s typically having accidents later, they’ll know what his upper limit is on holding it and could “schedule” a separate, non-optional break for him about 10/15 minutes before he enters the Accident Zone. (Unless you think a desire for more independence/autonomy at school is part of the problem.)

If it’s a noise issue, he could wear noise-cancelling earmuffs. Send in wipes if he hates the toilet paper. If he’s just generally anxious about using the bathroom without you, send him to school with a picture of you in his pocket that he can look at or just more feel secure knowing you’re “with” him. Try taking him to lots of “different” public restrooms to expose him to all the different toilets/sinks/environments. (Basically, if you’re out and there’s a restroom, make a point to stop in and see if he’ll go.)

Now, if you’re really unable to get him to share the root of his fear and just can’t hit on any obvious solution or workaround, it might not be the end of the world to put him back in diapers or pull-ups at school. I know, I know, it feels like the worst thing to give up on progress, but 1) it’s not like being potty trained is imperative for his continued attendance there, 2) if he’s holding pee (and I assume poop) in for hours and hours every day, week after week — that isn’t healthy for him, and can lead to some pretty yucky issues. He made the choice once that he was ready to ditch the diapers at school, but maybe that just turned out to be premature for him. That’s okay! School should be a positive experience and if he’s spending half the day fighting his body just to avoid the negative experience, you don’t have to add to the fight by being a total hardass about it.

Again, definitely TRY to sort out the root of his fear or discomfort and see if you can help. But if it’s something you really can’t change or help with, let him know that it’s okay. (After all, everybody gets scared!) Let him go back to diapers or pull-ups until he’s not scared anymore or decides (again) that he’s ready to wear underwear at school. And he will! I promise.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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